“Tag! You’re It!” — One More Analyst’s Thoughts on Tag Management

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Unless you’re living in a cave (and, you’re clearly not, because you’re spending enough time trolling the interwebtubes to wind up on this blog), you’ve seen, heard, and felt the latest wave of news and excitement about tag management. Google announced Google Tag Manager last month, rumors are swirling that Adobe is going to begin providing their tag manager for free to all Sitecatalyst clients, and, most recently, Eric Peterson wrote a post trying to bring it all together. (Well…that was the most recent post when I started writing this, but Rudi Shumpert actually weighed in with a wish list for tag management systems, and his post is worth a read, too!).

My awareness of tag management dates back just over two years — back to Eric’s initial paper on the subject, which was sponsored by Ensighten; this coincided with Josh Manion’s “Tagolution” marketing stunt at the Washington, D.C. eMetrics in the fall of 2010. Since then:

  • I’ve had multiple discussions and demos from multiple enterprise tag management vendors (and even training from one!).
  • I’ve had one client that used Ensighten.
  • I hosted a recent Web Analytics Wednesday in Columbus that was co-sponsored by BrightTag, who also presented there
  • I’ve chatted with several local peers who either already have or are in the process of implementing tag management.
  • I’ve taken a crack at rolling out Google Tag Manager on this blog (I failed after an hour of fiddling — broke several things and couldn’t get Google Analytics working with it)

Along the way, of course, I’ve read posts, seen conference presentations, and chatted with a number of sharp analysts. I’ve also, apparently, derided the underlying need for tag management to Evan LaPointe of Satellite. This was over a year ago, and I don’t remember the conversation, but I am a cynic by nature, so I don’t doubt that I was somewhat skeptical.

My fear then, as it is now, is this:

Once again, we’re treating an emerging class of technology as a panacea. We’re letting vendors frame the conversation, and we’re putting our heads in the sand about some important realities.

Now, all told, I’ve had a lot of conversations and very little direct hands-on use of these platforms. On the one hand, since I love to tinker, that’s a symptom of some of what I’ll cover in this toast — tag management requires wayyyy more than “just dropping a single line of Javascript” to actually use. On the other hand, I may just be doing that blogging bloviation thing. You decide!

Tag Management Doesn’t Simplify the Underlying Tools

Example No. 1: In the spring of 2011, I got a demo — via Webex — of one of the leading enterprise tag management systems. The sales engineer who was demoing the product repeatedly confused Sitecatalyst and Google Analytics functionality in his demo. It was apparent that he had little familiarity with any web analytics tool, and questions that we asked to try to understand how the product worked got very vague and unsatisfactory answers. If the sales guy couldn’t clearly show and articulate how to accomplish some of our most common tagging challenges, we wondered, how could we believe him that his solution was, well, a solution?

Example No. 2: When it came to our client who used Ensighten, we were set up such that analysts at my agency developed the Sitecatalyst tagging requirements as part of our design and development work for the client, while an analytics consultancy — also under contract with the client — actually implemented what we specified through the TMS. Time and again, new content got pushed to production with incorrect or nonexistent tagging. And, time and again, we were told by the analytics consultancy that we needed to make adjustments to the site in order for them to be able to get the tags to fire as specified. Certainly, this was not all the fault of the tag management platform, as a tool is only as good as the people and processes that use it. But, the experience highlighted that tag management introduces complexity at the same time that it introduces flexibility.

Example No. 3: I had a discussion with a local analyst who works for a large retailer that is using BrightTag. When I asked how she liked it, she said the tool was fine, but, what no one had really thought through was that the “owner of the tool” inherently needed to be fairly well-versed in every tool the TMS was managing. In her case, she was an analyst well-versed in Sitecatalyst. She had BrightTag added to her plate of responsibilities. Overnight, she found herself needing to understand her companies implementations of ForeSee, Google Analytics, Brightcove, and a whole slew of media tracking technologies. In order to deploy a tag or tracking pixel correctly through the TMS, she actually needed to know what tags to deploy and how to deploy them in their own right.

Example No. 4: In my own experience with rolling out Google Tag Manager, I quickly realized how many different tags and tag customizations I’ve got on this blog. My documentation sucks, I admit, and over half of what is deployed is “for tinkering,” so, in that regard, my experience with this site isn’t a great example. On the other hand, sites that have been built up and evolved over years can’t simply “add tag management.” They have to ferret out where all of their tags are and how they’ve been tweaked and customized. Then, for each tagging technology, they need to get them completely un-deployed, and then redeploy them through the tag management system. That’s not a trivial task.

Putting all of these examples together is concerning, because there is a very real risk that, in an industry that is already facing a serious supply shortage, a significant number of very smart, multi-year-experienced analysts will find themselves spending 100% of their time as tool jockeys managing tags rather than analysts focused on solving business problems.

Tag Management Doesn’t Simplify User Experience

Completely separate from the discussions around tag management is the reality of the continuing evolution and fragmentation of the online consumer experience.

I recently completed a tagging spec for a client whose technology will be rolled out onto the sites of a number of their clients. As I navigated through the experience — widget-ized content augmentation our client’s clients’ sites — I was reminded anew how non-linear and non-“page”-based our online experiences have become. Developing tags that would enable the performance management and analysis that we scoped out in our measurement framework, that would be reasonably deployable and maintainable, and that would deliver data that would be interpretable by the casual business user while also having the underlying breadth and depth needed for the analyst, required many hours of thought and work.

And …the platform has pretty minimal designed integration with social media.

And …the platform does not yet have a robust mobile experience.

In other words, in some respects, this was a pretty simple tagging exercise…and it wasn’t simple!

The truth: Most of our customers and potential customers are now multi-device (phones, tablets, laptops, desktops, TV,…) and multi-channel (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, apps, web site,…). Tag management only works where “the tag” can be deployed, and it doesn’t inherently provide cross-device and cross-channel tracking. (For the record, neither does branding the next iteration of your platform as “Universal Analytics,” either…but that’s a topic for another day.)

Tag Management IS Another Failure Point

I’ve developed a reverse Pavlovian response to the phrases “single line of code” and “no IT involvement” — it’s a reverse response because, rather than drooling, I snarl. Tag management vendors are by no means the only platforms that laud their ease of deployment. And, there is truth in what they say — a single line of Javascript that includes a file with a bunch of code in it is a pretty clever way to minimize the technical level of effort to deploy a tool.

But, with the power of tag management comes some level of risk. I can deploy and update my Webtrends tags through a TMS. That means there are risks that:

  • I could misdeploy it and not be capturing data at all.
  • I could deploy it in a way that hangs up the loading of the entire site.
  • I could use my tag management system to implement some UI changes rather than waiting for IT’s deployment cycle…and break the UI for certain browsers.
  • I could implement code that will capture user data that violates my company’s privacy policy.

IT departments, as a whole, are risk averse. They are the ones whose cell phones ring in the middle of the night when the site crashes. They’re the ones who wind up in front of the CEO to explain why the site crashed on Black Friday. They are the ones who wind up in the corporate counsel’s office responding to a request to provide details on exactly what systems did what and when in response to lawsuits.

In other words, every time a TMS vendor proudly delivers their, “No IT involvement!” claim…I feel a little ill for two reasons:

  • The friction between IT and Marketing is real, but it needs to be addressed through communication rather than a technology solution.
  • The statement illustrates that the TMS vendor is not recognizing that site-wide updates of Javascript should be vetted through some sort of rigorous (not necessarily lengthy!) process (yes, many TMSs have workflow capabilities, but the fact that, “Oh, we have workflow and you can have it go through IT before being deployed…if you need to do that” is a response to a question rather than an up-front recognition is concerning).

I have a lot of empathy for the IT staff that gets cut out of TMS vendor discussions until after the contract has been signed and are then told to “just push out this one line of code.” That puts them in a difficult, delicate, and unfair spot!

Yet…Tag Management Is the Future

Do my concerns above mean that I think tag management is misguided or a mistake? Absolutely not! Tag management is an important step forward for the industry, but we can’t ignore the underlying realities. Tag management isn’t easy — no more than web analytics is easy or testing and optimization easy. The technology is a critical part of the whole formula, and I’m excited to see as many players as there are in the space — they’ll be innovating like crazy to survive! But, people (with knowledge) and processes (that cut across many systems) seem like they must be just as important to a successful TMS deployment as the TMS itself.

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11 Comments


  1. Tim, I love the quote “Once again, we’re treating an emerging class of technology as a panacea. We’re letting vendors frame the conversation, and we’re putting our heads in the sand about some important realities” This mindset is missing from so many of the tms conversations that I’ve had with folks and clients. There is no magic wand to make this process easy, but it can make it better if planned properly.

    Great post.
    -Rudi

  2. Great post Tim. I too have the same negative reaction to the “just one line of code!” sales pitch for the ease of use for TMS. Sure, it takes one line of code to enable…and just one line of code to screw everything up.

    Your point about Google Tag Manager, and the BrightTag example, are ones that I’ve personally experienced. I was playing around with Google Tag Manager on my own blog, with varied success. I got the core GA tag working and some custom events, but as soon as I tried to put the Quantcast tag into the system, it stopped selectively firing some of my GA tags! Since it was my blog, it’s a low stress situation, and luckily I’m a pretty methodical person so I figured out how to rollback the Quantcast issue. But I fear that most “marketers” aren’t going to be so detail-oriented, especially when the TMS vendors are so enthusiastic about how “easy” their tools are for marketers to cut out IT and publish their own tags.

  3. These failures aren’t TMS as a category/acronym. They are failures of the tool makers, who have limited vision or a tactical view of the application/future of these technologies.

    I like your point that they don’t simplify the tools themselves. Indeed, SC will remain complex with or without TMS. However, only one TMS represents this tool in its completeness in UI, meaning only one tool has even remotely attempted to tame the beast. The rest have created half-assed attempts at the least common denominator of implementation (page code), and that itself is limited and requires JS-aware people to come in and wire the rest of it together to do the most basic things. That is not SC’s fault (although there will be a limiting reagent at some point in the process). It’s the fault of incomplete product development and inelegance in solution design.

    I like that this is the first post to actually cite examples. I think those examples should serve to detail that these vendors’ current attempts at something are not reaching their expectations or sales messaging, but be careful of saying the category itself can’t or won’t reach those goals. The same was said of tablets when they were flip-over screens with plastic styluses. The issue wasn’t the tablet form factor; the issue was that the attempt at product or solution design was limited in vision or aiming for the wrong target. And I hope if we fall short, you’ll use us as an example, too. The goal should be a successful creation of this tool, not a deconstruction of it.

    Regarding risk: anything on this earth with any value or power comes with risk. Without risk, we would still be nomads eating berries off of branches (nope, we don’t know if that’ll kill us)…eating animals(nope….spears are too dangerous for kids)….uhh..we’d all be dead.

  4. @Rudi and @Randy — thanks for the validation!

    @Evan — Points very well taken. In a way, it sucks that you’re a tool vendor, because that introduces a grain of salt into your comment. It *has* to — there’s nothing you can do about that. BUT, from the demos and discussions I’ve had when it comes to Satellite, as well as your very consistent articulation of Satellite’s goal and strengths, you’ve already got my money when it comes to betting on the most likely “emerging” (blame Eric, not me) TMS to make a run at the market. I *absolutely* want to see vendors take the interface as seriously as I believe Satellite is. I’m not smart enough to know if that’s an attainable goal (I feel like I’m at least experienced enough to say that Adobe didn’t take a similar challenge seriously with Sitecatalyst, and the jury is wayyyy out as to whether they’ve learned their lesson there; see the comments on Eric’s post).

  5. Indeed I am a dirty vendor with all sorts of underlying motives. But I’m also the same person I was before I started buying drinks for crowds: someone who doesn’t take “sorta” for an answer (or won’t sell “sorta”), nor do I take “sorta” as a reason to stop trying. We are very guilty in this industry of giving pass/fail answers to “sorta” things when what’s needed is a growth in demand for more elegance, more artistry, and more thoughtful solutions to complex problems. Past failure in product is no predictor of the future; in fact it’s a guide for future success that everyone in this space and others will use to build their products or make them better. And you and I both know for a fact that as a counterbalance to the complaints levied against any player in TMS, each of those systems have produced real, tangible value for their clients. Some more than others, but they’re all valuable.

    Now, what irks me (and you) is the inchworm issue: Satellite was the first (and is still the only) to remove JS from complex tracking and engagement scenarios, build lovely and outrageously powerful UI, and push messaging that we are friendly to analysts and savvy marketers. Then we literally watched our top competitors’ web sites and messaging change over the next 2 weeks after claiming that. While that’s funny, letting the “little guy” push you around, how could they not? You can’t just lay down and die (especially not when you have VCs calling you every day, saying sell, sell, sell!). But unfortunately, the product is the ass-end of many players’ inchworm (and sales is the head). The head surges out in front, writing checks the ass can’t cash, while we’ve done the opposite. Our product surges ahead and our ass is conservative, honest sales/marketing which is why we have a technology that has emerged from 100% of POC’s as the chosen solution. Maybe that’s what Eric meant by “emerging.” Emerging as the best solution, every single time, when the rubber meets the road in real-world use? Yeah, that has a nice ring to it.

    So enjoy that grain of salt!

  6. Evan.. I can’t argue with any of the points you have made and that really bums me out as I really enjoy arguing with you on the merits of TMS systems. I might have to resort to mocking you for your musical tastes.

    -Rudi

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  10. Great post Tim. You’re clearly a thought leader on Tag Management and Tag Management Systems. As someone who is not a developer but relatively technical I can’t agree more – the existing platforms are difficult to navigate and don’t offer what they claim – an “easy” way to manage tags.

    I’d like to introduce you to a tool that is relevant yet certainly not a tag management system itself. It’s called Tag Inspector (www.taginspector.com) and it crawls websites and essentially “audits” them. It will tell you which page a tag is firing on, which pages are missing tags, allows for automatic scan scheduling, etc. It helps a ton when first implementing a Tag Management System as you can be sure you’ve removed all old tags and correctly implemented the new TMS.

  11. Thanks for the offer, Jimmy. I’m vaguely familiar with ObservePoint and Hub’Scan. It’s good to know of Tag Inspector. I suspect I’ll get to a point where I need to dive into these sorts of tools more deeply, so it’s good to have a list to work from.

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